DAYS OF AWE
By A.M. Homes
288 pp. Viking. $25.
In the 12 wide-ranging stories of her latest collection, “Days of Awe,” A. M. Homes skillfully circles and tugs at the question of what it means to live in flawed, fragile, hungry human bodies. One character embeds rose thorns in her feet; several have very disordered eating habits; people die too young, go to war and hold in their cells and minds the memories of past trauma. The title story is about a war reporter and a novelist who meet at a conference on genocide and have a weekend affair. Here the body is death — the millions killed who haunt the conference attendees — but it’s also desire. The affair is vivid and real and yet there is a shard of violence in it, the everyday violence of two people using each other to counter pain they don’t know how to digest.
Of a plastic surgeon in “Brother on Sunday,” Homes writes, “He thinks about Botox and Restylane and lasering spider veins and resurfacing a face, and sometimes he feels like a conservator, like the guy he once sat next to at a dinner who worked at the Met, touching up artworks when they chipped or when the ceiling leaked on them.” The possibility of profound beauty presses from one direction; the certainty of imperfection, of shame, presses from the other. Between these forces, the characters are hardened, sometimes into coal, sometimes into diamonds. But Homes, the author of 11 other books, including the best-selling memoir “The Mistress’s Daughter” and the Baileys Women’s Prize-winning novel “May We Be Forgiven,” is interested in more than beauty or ugliness: She writes about the interaction between inner lives and outer lives and our attempts to be seen or to hide. In “Hello Everybody,” Homes writes of two teenagers: “They are forever marking and unmarking their bodies, as though it were entirely natural to write on them and equally natural to erase any desecration or signs of wear, like scribbling notes to oneself on the palm of the hand. They are making their bodies their own — renovating, redecorating, the body not just as corpus but as object of self-expression, a symbiotic relation between imagination and reality.”
“Days of Awe” is sliced through with Homes’s dark humor. After introducing the genocide conference and the communities involved — “Cambodia, East Timor, Rwanda, the Sudan, the former Yugoslavia, the Holocaust of World War II, the history of colonial genocides and the early response to the AIDS epidemic” — the conference leader goes on to thank the event’s sponsors, “an airline, two global search engines, an insurance firm, the already mentioned antidepressant and a family-owned ice-cream company.” He also notes that there are free juice and chair massages. The attendees are people who have dedicated their lives to the study of trauma; they are also adults on a business trip in New Hampshire. The conference is its own little economy where worse is better. During one panel, a Holocaust survivor chastises the novelist, remarking: “Fiction is a luxury our families didn’t have. … We didn’t pack our summer reading and go off to the camps, happy, happy. This isn’t even your story.” There are no clear property claims around cruelty or despair, or our ability to ensure situations almost too terrible to believe; such experiences, Homes insists, are lands we all visit.